“Bunch of green ribbons” from the Bodleian collection
The first song in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs is from Lower Beeding, Sussex. The next is from Moonee Ponds, Victoria, in Australia. The singer, the octagenarian Mrs. Ann Aston, had been living in Australia since 1855, but had been born in Coleford, Gloucestershire. She had learned the song from an uncle, who also hailed from Gloucestershire.
The notes to the book say “This song was sent to W. P. Merrick from Australia” – by whom, I’m afraid I know not – and “The text has been amplified from versions sung to H.E.D. Hammond in 1906 by two Dorset women, Mrs. Hann of Stoke Abbot and Mrs. Russell of Upwey. A version from Lew Down, Devon, appears in Songs of the West (Baring-Gould and others, 1905) under the title of A Maiden Sat A-Weeping.” Malcolm Douglas’ expanded notes to the reprint (Classic English Folk Songs) point out that the final verse appears to come from the Baring-Gould version.
In the folk revival, the most widely sung version is probably that based on the recording by Pentangle (“Once I had a sweetheart” from Cruel Sister), which seems to derive from a version collected by Sharp in Somerset. But I really like John Kirkpatrick’s arrangement of Baring-Gould’s “A Maiden Sat A-Weeping” on the Brass Monkey album Going and Staying.Steeleye Span were so taken with the “Sails of Silver” line that they based a whole song around it, the title track of their 1980 LP.
As for my own arrangement, I can no longer recall if the D minor – Eb major chord progression was the result of musical inspiration, or just a happy accident. Probably the latter, to be honest.
This is the song I had meant to post last week, but when I came to upload it I found I had forgotten to press the Record button. Glad to say that this week I seem to have overcome my technical deficiencies.
I learned the song over 30 years ago from Fred Hamer’s book Garner’s Gay. It’s one of several pieces which Hamer recorded from Bedfordshire singer David Parrott. Of the song, Hamer wrote
David’s brother produced evidence to show that this song was sung by an ancestor of the Parrott family who had served at Waterloo. Apparently he was in the habit of singing the song as reunions of veteran soldiers at the Corn Exchange in Bedford, and he invites us to imagine that this is the conversation that takes place when a father takes his son, wounded at Trafalgar, before a naval surgeon, who tries to swindle him out of his disablement pension by claiming it was his own fault.
Of the singer
In 1924 the Bedfordshire Times published a series of articles examining the repertoire of songs sung by the pseudonymous author’s mother. It took me two years of diligent search to find the author’s name, and by the time I found them both he and his mother had died. However his brother, David, was still alive and he could remember the tunes of most of the songs.
British forces formed part of a military alliance which drove Napoleon’s French out of Egypt in 1801, and I imagine this song dates from that period. But in fact British soldiers fought many more campaigns in Egypt and Sudan over the next century and a half, so it’s a song which would not have lost its currency. And of course, on Remembrance Sunday, it is worth remarking that British troops continue to fight – and die – in a variety of “sandy desert places” to this day.
I first came across this song in the late seventies, in Peggy Seeger & Ewan MacColl’s book, The Singing Island, although it was several years before I learned it properly. It’s a version from Betsy Henry, of Auchterarder in Pethshire – actually, MacColl’s mother. I have anglicised it slightly, although that didn’t amount to much more than substituting “England” for “Scotland” in the last verse.
Some years ago, on a visit to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, my search for the words of a song led me to the George Gardiner MSS. These are now freely available on the EFDSS Take Six website but back in the dark ages one had to scroll through the collection on microfilm. Once I’d noted down the song I was after, having put Malcolm to the trouble of loading up the film, I thought I might as well have a browse and see what else I could find. I’m really glad I did, as I came across the version of ‘The Isle of France’ which I recorded last year with Magpie Lane, and this little gem, which immediately became one of my favourites.
I see that Steve Roud has given this a unique Roud number; although the song has some words in common with other songs, such as ‘Yarmouth is a Pretty Town’, ‘Boys of Kilkenny’ and ‘The Chaps of Cockaigny’.
It’s one of those songs which conjure up an atmosphere, but you’re not really sure what’s going on. No doubt at one time the song did make more sense but, deliberately or through forgetfulness, the folk process has improved it. (The mystery preserved in the words adds to my enjoyment of the song – it seems to make it “proper poetry”; and I’m a great fan of Elvis Costello, but I often don’t have a clue what he’s going on about).
Gardiner collected this in Axford, Hants – a hotbed of traditional singing at the time, it would seem – on 19 August 1907. The source was Alfred Goodyear, an agricultural labourer born at Nutley, less than a mile away, in 1866 (I have this from a list of Hampshire singers produced by the Singing Landscape Project at Bournemouth University).